17 September 2018

Permanent election TV debates is a step too far


Sky News has today begun a campaign to make TV debates a permanent feature of future general election campaigns. The broadcaster has come up with an urgent-sounding hashtag, #MakeDebatesHappen. and an endorsement from Sir Nick Clegg himself.

As Sir Nick points out, the TV debates were a “defining feature” of the 2010 election, and letting politicians decide whether or not to take part denies the public “a vital opportunity to scrutinise the people who were fighting for their votes”. Sunny though this analysis is, it suffers from not really being true.

Clegg is certainly sincere in his belief that the 2010 debates were a defining feature of the campaign. Not because they were, of course, but because they were a defining feature of the campaign for Nick Clegg. The debates catapulted him into the public consciousness and gave birth to that now distant phenomena, ‘Cleggmania’. What’s often forgotten is that the Lib Dems went on to lose seats, even if they did end up in government for the first time.

Like Clegg, broadcasters have sound reasons of their own to want more televised debates. After all, political debates often make for good TV and attract decent ratings, which is what TV channels are in the business of generating. Print media cannot replicate the pull of television debates, of course, and broadcasters know that too.

The strongest argument behind Sky’s campaign is about consistency. In a political system where scrutiny is highly prized, why should politicians get to veto whether they have to explain themselves in public. They produce an exciting spectacle for the public and are an accessible way for people who might not follow every cough and spit of politics to get involved.

But that is, in a sense, the problem. David Cameron complained in 2010 that the debates themselves, and not the substance of the campaign, took up too much collective attention. All the discussions of format and feature occupied those whose thoughts ought to have been elsewhere.

Wrangling over the format might be less of an issue if the debates were a standard part of campaigning. It would also remove a tactical decision for the party leaders over which, if any, debates to accept an invitation to. Cameron benefited from avoiding a one-on-one meeting with Ed Miliband; Theresa May, by contrast, suffered when she sent out Amber Rudd to debate in her place at last year’s election. There would be less jeopardy if the things were going to happen in any case with fixed attendance. But the superficial chatter would not subside entirely.

But even well-organised debates with little surrounding froth about process are hardly a great advert for democracy. Indeed, they are often  not really “debates” at all, but a chance for senior politicians to trot out carefully prepared soundbites and gags at their opponents’ expense.

Certainly, the most arresting moments can stick in voters’ mind. Ronald Reagan’s folksy quips and Donald Trump’s outrageous comments (“because you’d be in jail”, for instance) both show how a candidate can seize the initiative. Although those moments can live long in the memory, they also underline that debates can easily substitute affability and ‘being good value’ for seriousness and political skill.

Voters learn little about policy, or about how candidates would perform in office. And politicians in high office are rarely held to account in serious, useful ways, rather than being hit over the head with cherry-picked examples of apparent malfeasance or error.

Perhaps the answer is a gruelling three-hour debate, such as those between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen before the second round of last year’s French presidential election. They are too heavy to be entirely composed of fluff. Debates in this form may serve some purpose in assessing politicians’ stamina and self-control, though whether viewers have the same stamina is a different question entirely.

Who would honestly argue that the primary debates preceding the last US presidential election held any besides entertainment value, or that the TV and radio debates before recent Labour leadership contests really edified viewers?Equally, even the most ardent political anoraks would struggle to defend the unwieldy seven-person contests before the 2017 election and the multi-headed pseudo-debates preceding the EU referendum.

Broadcasters should, by all means, attempt to secure valuable and consistent content for themselves. But to suggest that debates should become a permanent fixture of political campaigns is plainly a step too far.

James Snell is a British writer whose work has appeared in National Review, Prospect and History Today.